Elecampane

(Inula helenium) The specific name helenium seems to suggest some connection with Helen, and one legend says that she was holding a branch of elecampane when she was carried off by Paris. Another holds that the plant was born of the tears she shed (Palaiseul). There is a superstition in Guernsey that it could be used for a love charm. It had to be gathered on St John's Eve, dried and powdered, and mixed with ambergris. Then it had to be worn next to the heart for nine days, after which the person whose love it was wished to obtain had to be got to swallow some of it (MacCulloch). It is a lucky plant, in any case. The Welsh wore it in the hat or cap, because it had the power to frighten robbers. If put in the cap of a deceiver, he or she would immediately get very red in the face. Welsh children had a rhyme:

Elecampane, what is my name?

If you ask me again, I will tell you the same

(Trevelyan).

So, too, in the Balkans, it would be sewn in children's clothes to ward off witchcraft, but it had to be gathered with some ritual, and on special days (Vukanovics).

Elecampane is edible - in fact, the leaves were at one time a popular potherb, and the young roots were cooked, too. The Romans, so it is said, served slivers of the boiled roots as appetisers (A W Hatfield). They were candied, too, like angelica, and eaten as a sweet (Taylor), or sold as elecampane cakes, to sweeten the breath (Genders. 1976). Most London apothecaries stocked them. Another use, apparently, was in the distillation of absinthe in France and Switzerland (Fluckiger & Hanbury).

But it was, and still is, as a medicinal herb that elecampane is famed. The doctor in the mumming plays nearly always resuscitates the dead men with drops from a bottle of elecampane. The word gets transformed into all sorts of nonsense - champagne, Alpine pain, elegant pain, etc., Nowadays, most of the usages are in veterinary medicine. The various 'Horseheal' names are a measure of that. It is used in America for horses' throat ailments (Leighton), and in this country for skin diseases in horses and mules, as well as for scab in sheep (Wiltshire). The leaves, too, are fed to horses to improve their appetite (G E Evans. 1960).

For medicine for humans, the roots have been used for a long time (and apparently still are (Le Strange) ) to make cough candies (Brownlow); they were, too, a long-standing remedy for bronchitis (Clair), and even for hay fever (Conway). The infusion of the fresh roots was used for whooping cough (Thornton), or for asthma (Forey). The existence of names like Elf-wort, or Elf-dock, suggested to Grigson that supernatural belief was mixed up with real medicinal value (Grig-son. 1952). Be that as it may, the tincture is still sometimes taken for loss of appetite (Fl├╝ck) (Gerard too said it is "good and wholesome for the stomacke"). From Apuleius as far as Gerard, elecampane was used for worms, even, apparently, by laying the preparation on the stomach. It is not very clear what Gerard wanted his patients to do with it - presumably drink "the juyce ... boyled, for it "driveth forth all kinde of wormes of the belly.".

Gerard recommended the root, "boiled very soft, and mixed in a mortar with fresh butter and the poudre of Ginger", as "an excellent ointment against the itch, scabs, manginesse, and such like". This Unguentum Enulatum was at one time official (Clair) - witness the popular name Scabwort. It has a venerable history, for in Anglo-Saxon times we find this mixture of medicine and magic: "against eruption of the skin: take goose-fat and the lower part of elecampane and viper's bugloss, bishop's wort and cleavers, pound the four herbs together well, squeeze them out, add a spoonful of old soap to it. If you have a little oil, mix it with it thoroughly, and lather it in well at night. Scarify the neck after sunset, silently, pour the blood into running water, spit three times after it, then say: "Take this disease and depart with it". Go back to the house by an open road and go each way in silence" (Storms). By the middle of the 17th century Lupton was still able to claim that "a sawsfleam or red pimpled face is helped with this medicine ...". There is a record from Ireland for its use for burns (Maloney), and, from Sussex, another is the use of the leaves as bandages in wounds (Allen). Like many another prized medicine, even more extravagant claims could be made for it, the best of all being that it is a counter-poison. Gerard quite seriously promoted the idea, and, equally seriously, Thomas Hill wrote that it "is profitable against poyson, against the pestilent aire and plague, etc., ...". This is almost capped by the Chinese and Japanese use against cholera, extended more reasonably to malaria and dysentery (L M Perry), and Indiana domestic medicine uses it for rabies. The procedure is to take the roots, powdered, boiled in a pint of milk down to half a pint. Take a third of the result in the morning every other day, and eat no food till 4 pm on those days. It is effective, they say, provided it is started within 24 hours of the accident (Tyler).

There is a record from the Balkans of the use of the roots as a disinfectant. It is not clear exactly what is meant; perhaps it is burned as a fumigant (Kemp), but in Sussex the roots were hung at doors and windows to act as fly catchers (Allen).

Elettaria cardamomum > CARDAMOM

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